Why the San Francisco 49ers Are Headed for a Memorable Season

Art WellersdickContributor IIOctober 17, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 14: Quarterback Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers stands in the huddle with Frank Gore #21 and Anthony Davis #76 during the first quarter against the New York Giants at Candlestick Park on October 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California.  (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

The San Francisco 49ers have had some ups and downs at this point of this season already. They started off the year hot against two playoff teams from last season, fell flat against an underrated Minnesota squad, responded by blowing out the Jets and the Bills in arguably the best two-game stretch of 49ers regular-season football in decades..........and then promptly fell right back to Earth with their worst game under head coach Jim Harbaugh in a blowout loss to the New York Giants.

Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, barring a sudden onslaught of horrific injuries, this season will shape up to be a memorable one.

A full-fledged quarterback controversy in San Francisco might be right around the corner if Alex Smith turns in a couple more stinkers like he did against New York. This Thursday's matchup against the Seahawks will go a long ways toward determining how much longer the fanbase remains skeptical about a quarterback change.

Smith isn't in any real danger of losing his job, but the court of fan opinion tends to be more harsh with its verdicts than the coaching staff's, and Smith's grip on the goodwill he accumulated last season will become tenuous if he has many more games like last Sunday's.

Kaepernick isn't ready for a full-time starting role yet and Alex Smith is going to have start playing more like the 2007 version of himself before any thought of change comes to mind. But that doesn't take away from Kaepernick's clear physical superiority, something that is much more apparent to the fans than command of the playbook.

And Kaepernick's physical talents are something to behold. His throwing motion is a little unorthodox, but the velocity and quality of spiral that he delivers the ball with is already in the upper echelon of the NFL. He may be the most talented runner at the position as well, aside from Robert Griffin III.

It won't take many more underthrown deep balls from Smith, followed by a laser beam from Kaepernick that knocks the receiver over 30 yards downfield before fans begin wondering how much longer Smith is going be the better option.

I expect Alex Smith to right the ship and get back to playing the way that has made him such a success over the last year-and-a-half. But righting that ship means getting back to being a good, smart, physically-talented player who still has some serious limits to his game.

The bottom line is that most winning quarterbacks in the NFL are capable of carrying their team on their backs for stretches at a time. Smith is a winning quarterback, but he lacks the one dimension that can take him to the elite level, and possibly take the 49ers to the highest level: the elite arm.

Kaepernick has it, Smith doesn't, plain and simple. There's no reason to start clamoring for Kaepernick because physical talent only gets a player so far (see: Michael Vick). In all other aspects of the game, Smith is the superior player. Jim Harbaugh is not going to make a switch anytime soon and I'd be shocked if Kaepernick made a start over a healthy Smith this year.

But this year will be memorable because it marks the first time that the 49ers have shown a glimpse of their future at the quarterback position, and fans are intrigued by the possibilities Kaepernick represents. He hasn't entered the starting lineup yet, and he probably won't this year. But he has firmly planted himself into the long-term goals of the 49ers and this year he has cemented his status as the heir apparent to Alex Smith in the fans' minds as well.

It may prove to be the beginning of a quarterback controversy, but I think what we are really seeing here is a slow transition at the position that will play out over the next couple of years. If Kaepernick becomes another in the long line of great San Francisco quarterbacks, this year will mark the memorable start to that career.